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Two Southern California police officers must stand trial in the death of mentally ill homeless man Kelly Thomas, whose beating by cops was captured in a graphic video shown publicly for the first time this week in court, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Fullerton police officers Jay Cicinelli, left, and Manuel Ramos were ordered Wednesday to stand trial in the death of Kelly Thomas in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, Calif.
Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm said in Santa Ana, Calif., there was sufficient evidence presented during a three-day preliminary hearing – including the showing of the 33-minute black-and-white video – that a jury trial was in order for Officer Manuel Ramos, charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, charged with involuntary manslaughter and assault or battery by a public officer. Both have pleaded not guilty.
It is the first time in Orange County history that a police officer has been ordered to stand trial on a murder charge for actions that occurred while on duty and in uniform, the Orange County Register reported.
Ramos, 38, a 10-year veteran of the Fullerton Police Department, remains free on $1 million bail pending his next court date to select a trial judge. He faces a potential sentence of 15 years to life in prison if convicted.
Cicinelli, 42, remains free on $25,000 bail pending a hearing before Superior Court Judge Craig Robison. He faces a potential four-year term in prison if convicted.
"This is another victory, on another battle," said Thomas' father, Ron. "We're going to start a new one with the trial."
John Barnett, Ramos' attorney, said he would seek another court's review of Schwarm's ruling and did not expect his client would end up facing a jury trial.
"We're disappointed that they were held to answer but we will seek review in an appropriate manner," he told reporters after the ruling. "He believes, and he is innocent."
Earlier Wednesday, Orange County's top prosecutor argued that Ramos and Cicinelli abused their "awesome powers" when they took part in wrestling the homeless and schizophrenic victim to the ground and pounding him into unconsciousness.
Defense attorneys, however, argued that their clients used reasonable force to restrain a combative suspect, and that no crimes were committed.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas contended that Ramos' attitude, unlawful conduct and bullying of Thomas turned a routine encounter at the Fullerton Transportation Center last July 5 into a deadly beating.
Rackauckas contended that Ramos triggered the sequence of events when he snapped on rubber gloves, turned to a sitting Thomas and threatened "You see these fists? ... They are getting ready to f--- you up."
Within seconds of those words, Rackauckas said, Thomas was taken down, pummeled with fists and a Taser gun, and subdued by six officers, including Cpl. Cicinelli, Ramos' co-defendant, who arrived a few minutes and immediately jumped into the pile. Thomas screamed for help, asked for his Dad, and complained that he couldn't breathe before he slowly went silent during the struggle.
He never regained consciousness and died five days later after life support was removed at UCI Medical Center. A county pathologist testified during the preliminary hearing that Thomas died from injuries and chest compression during the beating that deprived him of oxygen.
"It's a bad day in Orange County, a very bad day, when we have to charge two police officers with these crimes," Rackauckas said. "They are sworn uphold the law, and trusted with the authority given to them by the state of California."
But defense attorney Barnett said his client had every right to detain and arrest Thomas, who refused to cooperate when the officers asked the homeless man for his name, the attorney said.
"Officer Ramos is not looking for a fight," Barnett argued. "He is not looking to beat somebody. ... He is just looking to get some information and be on his way."
Barnett contended that what is perceived to be a threat by Ramos to Thomas -- "See these fists? They are getting ready to f--- you up" -- was followed by the statement "If you don't do what we tell you."
"It was a conditional threat," Barnett said. "All Kelly Thomas would have had to do was simply comply. ... Officer Ramos had every right to issue that threat."
"He was trying to resolve this before trying to take him into custody, but Kelly Thomas would have no part of it," Barnett said.
Cicinelli, who was the third officer to arrive at the scene, rushed to the aid of two other officers struggling on the ground with Thomas, argued his defense attorney Michael Schwartz.
"The only information he (had was) that he was responding to (a) call involving a combative suspect," Schwartz said. Cicinelli, he said, joined the struggle to help his fellow officers and used appropriate force.
Schwartz also played segments of the video that he says show another officer delivering punches to Thomas' face and upper torso.
The video, according to Schwartz, appears to show Cicinelli pulling his Taser away from the reach of Thomas, who was trying to wrestle the weapon from his hand, Schwartz said, and Cicinelli was trained as a police officer to never give up his weapon.
"We can all agree that any loss of life is a tragedy," Schwartz said. "But there was no crime here. ... There was none."
The incident last July prompted an ongoing FBI investigation to determine if Thomas' civil rights were violated, an internal probe by the city, protests by residents and an effort to recall three Fullerton councilmembers that is slated for next month's ballot.
This article includes reporting by The Associated Press.
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